Coloradans could see at least three new water laws next year, including a ban on nonfunctional turf in commercial areas, new water management power for conservancy districts, and a study on the effectiveness of so-called green infrastructure projects in protecting water quality.
The proposed bills were approved Oct. 31 by the Colorado Legislature’s Water Resources and Agriculture Review Committee. They will be considered by lawmakers next year during the 2024 session of the General Assembly, which begins Jan. 10.
A fourth closely watched bill that would have added new protections for water saved through conservation plans failed to pass out of the committee.
Prohibiting nonfunctional turf
At its meeting in Denver, the committee recommended a measure to help reduce urban water use by prohibiting local governments and homeowners’ associations from installing nonfunctional turf on commercial, institutional or industrial property or in transportation corridors beginning Jan. 1, 2025. Nonfunctional turf is defined as grass that is “predominantly ornamental” and located in an area “that is not regularly used for civic, community, or recreational purposes” such as parks, sports fields and playgrounds. The bill does not apply to residential properties. The bill was sponsored by Sen. Dylan Roberts, D-Avon; Sen. Cleave Simpson, R-Alamosa; Rep. Karen McCormick, D-Boulder; and Rep. Barbara McLachlan, D-Archuleta.
In her testimony before the committee, Lindsay Rogers, a policy analyst at Western Resource Advocates, noted that half of municipal water use statewide is for landscape irrigation, and the majority of that goes toward watering non-native grasses.
Aurora has already implemented a nonfunctional turf ban. Marshall Brown, general manager of Aurora Water, told the committee that the city’s new ordinance is expected to reduce water use in new developments by 25%.
Expanding water management powers of conservancy districts
The committee also approved a bill that expands the powers of water conservancy districts to more effectively manage water use. The bill’s prime sponsors were Sen. Simpson and Rep. Matthew Martinez, D-Monte Vista. The San Luis Valley is home to the Costilla County Conservancy District. The bill is designed to make it easier for such districts to comply with state groundwater rules designed to protect aquifers, which in many areas have been hard-hit by drought and over-pumping.
The proposal would, among other things, allow wells to be shut down and allow the districts to issue bonds for water projects.
Green Infrastructure study to improve water quality
Another bill calls for a study of how “green infrastructure” might complement traditional water and wastewater treatment facilities in managing water quality. Green infrastructure can include a number of natural structures including wetlands.
These nature-based infrastructure projects can improve water quality by reducing stormwater runoff as pollutants are absorbed into soils and filtered before entering waterways, and lessen the need for expensive wastewater and drinking water treatment plants.
To move toward this goal, the bill requires the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment—in collaboration with University of Colorado’s Mortenson Center in Global Engineering and Resilience and Colorado State University’s Colorado Water Center—to conduct a feasibility study of how green infrastructure can be used in complying with water quality regulations, and what types of new funding mechanisms may support it, such as green bonds, mitigation banking and carbon credits. After completing the study, the department must establish one or more pilot projects to test its findings, and report its conclusions and any policy recommendations to the committee by July 1, 2025. The bill was sponsored by Sen. Simpson; Sen. Jeff Bridges, D-Arapahoe; Rep. Mike Lynch, D-Larimer; and Rep. McCormick.
Protecting conserved water
The committee failed to recommend a bill proposed by Sen. Roberts that sought to provide an incentive to water right holders to conserve water without risking the loss of that water through non-use, a fear he said many farmers and ranchers in his district have expressed. The perceived risk is based on Colorado’s “abandonment” statute, which states that “failure for a period of ten years or more to apply to a beneficial use the water right shall create a rebuttable presumption of abandonment of the water right.” The bill would have protected from abandonment water rights included as part of a Water Use Reduction Plan filed with the state Division of Water Resources.
Despite the abandonment statute, State Engineer Kevin Rein, Colorado’s top water regulator, noted at an earlier committee meeting that the law allows the abandonment rule to be waived “if special circumstances negate an intent to abandon.” It also provides protections against loss if the water is enrolled in a conservation program approved by a state agency, water conservation district, water conservancy district or municipality, or is loaned to the Colorado Water Conservation Board for its environmental Instream Flow Program.
The bill received support from a majority of committee members, but not the two-thirds needed. Sen. Roberts said he intends to continue working with stakeholders during the 2024 session to craft an approach that provides greater flexibility in saving water.
Larry Morandi was formerly director of State Policy Research with the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver, and is a frequent contributor to Fresh Water News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.